Dora Montefiore

From a Victorian to a Modern


Early Impressions

As the trailing clouds of childhood’s fantasy rolled slowly away, I became conscious, not only of myself and of my immediate nest-like surroundings, but of the dim reverberations of outside events which came throbbing into our sheltered home. We were standing, a little clutch of girls and boys round the piano on which my mother was playing the accompaniment of a song:

“Oh! it’s a nice little island,
Nice little, tight little island;
Devil or Don, let him come on,
But he shan’t get a bit of our island.”

I enjoyed shouting with the others the doggerel lines; but afterwards, with childish intellectual curiosity, I began to wonder what it was all about. “Devil” was in ordinary social intercourse a word we were not allowed to use (though my brothers in their holidays flung it around in the schoolroom when our governess was not there), so I pondered long on the problem as to who this particular “Devil” could be, who along with “Don” appeared to threaten our island and, incidentally, our home and myself. So at last I took my difficulties to my father and learnt that we had just beaten Russia in a war, and that was what the song was about. “But do devils and Dons live in Russia?” I queried; and my father, instead of giving a direct answer, fetched a map of Europe and pointed out to me the Crimea, where the fighting had been, showed me what a long way it was to send from England, by sea to the Crimea, the men, provisions, guns and ammunition, and told me something of the sufferings through the long winter of our troops and of the French, who were our friends and allies. “But didn’t the devils and Dons suffer also?” I cried, with tears in my eyes, for I hated cold. And then without waiting for an answer: “But why did the Russians want to come to England when they had all that big country to live in?” To this last question I never received a satisfactory answer, and I still fear that the writer of “The Tight Little Island,” which it was such good fun to sing, was exploiting the facile patriotism of children and of uninstructed folk. There were other chanties that also made an impression on my youthful emotions, as my mother played the accompaniments and led the singing. “There is a happy land, far, far away” sounded comforting and reassuring for the future, especially after the under-nurses’ threats of Hell, and the rumblings on the subject in church; but when “There is a fountain filled with blood” was sung, I saw the brimming fountains in Trafalgar Square slopping over with red gore, and in an ecstasy of self-imposed horror, I closed my eyes and put my fingers in my ears, and when asked what was the matter, refused obstinately to reply.

Another imperious impression from the outside world comes to me when I remember being taken in hushed horror into my mother’s room to see my father in bed with his head swathed in white bandages. It had been explained to me that he had been on the trial run of a very big ship called “The Great Eastern,”—which was built to carry the cable across the Atlantic, in order to connect England and America by telegraphic communications. My father’s life-long friend, Scott Russell, had planned and laid down the lines of the great ship, and he had invited my father, among others, for the trial trip. The two friends were pacing the deck, when one of the boilers exploded, and a falling piece of hot iron cut through my father’s top hat and caused a scalp wound. Some members of the crew were, I believe, killed, and it was explained to me that it was only father’s hard top hat that saved his life. He looked so different from my handsome, fresh-coloured father-friend as he lay bandaged in a darkened room, that I wanted to run away and cry; but his eyes smiled, and he beckoned to me that I was to scramble on to the bed and kiss him, so I was partly comforted before nurse led me away.

My father was by profession a land surveyor and estate agent; and he surveyed and valued the land for all the early railways. Purley Station was our nearest connection on the London and Brighton Line and my father wanted that company, of which he was for many years the surveyor, to make a branch line from Purley up the valley to Caterham, pointing out that London’s southern suburbs must develop in that direction and that land values would improve enormously if such a branch line were carried out. He was unsuccessful in persuading the Company and decided to make a line (a single one) himself, and at his own expense. Later on, when my father’s prophecy was fulfilled and Caterham Valley became a favourite railway suburb, the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway bought the line of him, and made it a double one. As he was born and had been brought up at Coulsdon Court, near the head of the valley, he had ridden and hunted every inch of land in the district, and knew every fence and bridle path of the countryside; I have heard from many of his contemporaries what an extraordinary gift he had of valuing standing crops with lands and buildings, and he foresaw accurately future values after railways had opened up a new district. All these matters I used to hear discussed from time to time when in the drawing-room; and sometimes one or other of us youngsters would be allowed to drive down with the groom to meet my father at Kenley Station on this branch line, when father would take the reins and drive home, and I perched up beside him would keep up a running fire of shy questions about all the things that had puzzled me during the daytime, and the matters I had heard talked about in the drawing-room the night before; for the charm to me of my father’s answers was that he never laughed at me or gave me puzzling answers as some people used to do, but spoke to me, I felt, out of the fullness of his own knowledge and with a real desire to help my ignorance and stimulate my opening intelligence.

He used to tell me that the branch of the Fuller family we belonged to, was that of the Fullers of Rose Hill; not direct descendants of the old Fuller, M.P., whose bust (placed there by local admirers) is in Brightling Church, Sussex—for he never married; but collateral descendants. That old eighteenth-century character lies buried in Brightling churchyard under a most massive and ungainly brick pyramid. A delightful parliamentary story is told about him, which I have often enjoyed thinking about during my Woman Suffrage work, and in later years when asked to contest a parliamentary seat. The old gentleman appears to have been irascible, and his language was not always kept within parliamentary bounds. On one occasion when he had transgressed, the Speaker demanded an apology to the House, and as at that period the apology had to be made by the contumacious member on his knees, Mr. Fuller went through the whole prescribed performance, but, as he rose, he dusted his knees with his handkerchief and remarked: “And a damned dirty House, too.” It has occurred to me sometimes in later life, when I listened to lifeless and insincere debates at Westminster, or interviewed Members of Parliament, whom I found too often ignorant and prejudiced about the subjects on which many of us women had thought deeply, that I had inherited some of the parliamentary disillusionment which was evidently part of the make-up of old Mr. Fuller of Rosehill; and when I read William Morris’ strictures on Parliament, I realised that, though it was none the less necessary for us women to insist on obtaining political citizenship, it would really go a very little way towards our economic and social emancipation. That would be another story.

As my father had been in reality the initiator of the first Great Exhibition in 1851, he naturally had constantly around him the men of thought and action of that early Victorian period. My father being a member of the Society of Arts, of which the Prince Consort was the President, he at a meeting of the Society on 30th June, 1849, was introduced by Mr. Thomas Cubitt to His Royal Highness in order that the Prince might afford him an opportunity of stating his opinion as to the desirability of founding in London an exhibition of the industry of all nations, which project my father had fully explained to Mr. Cubitt on June 12th, (page 224 of the minutes of the meetings of the promoters of the Great Exhibition, 1851). As the result of this and further interviews the task of making enquiries of the manufacturers throughout the Kingdom as to the advisability of holding such an Exhibition was entrusted to Mr. Scott Russell, my father (Mr. Francis Fuller) and Mr. Henry Cole.

As the result of this official enquiry among manufacturers throughout the United Kingdom, the scheme for launching the Great Exhibition in 1851 was continued under the presidency of the late. Prince Consort, who worked personally and assiduously to make the Exhibition the real success that it later on became. The guaranteed fund on which the Bank of England advanced money was organised, and in view of the Wembley Exhibition which has lately taken place, and which financially has not been the entire success that was expected, it may be of interest to give here the names of the subscribers to the guaranteed fund of the 1851 Exhibition.

Albert
Buccleuch
Overstone
Ellesmere
Stanley
Ross
Granville
Lord John Russell
Sir Robert Peel
Sir A. Gallaway
Sir C. Lyell
Sir R. Westmacot
Rt. Hon. T. Baring
Mr. Labouchere
T.M. Gibson
W.E. Gladstone
S.M. Peto
William Cubitt
Robert Stephenson
Richard Cobden
Thomas Beezley
Charles Barron
C.W. Eastlake
P. Pusey
W. Thompson
C. W. Dilke
Henry Cole
Francis Fuller

10,000
10,000
10,000
10,000
5,000
5,000
5,000
10,000
5,000
1,000
1,000
10,000
5,000
5,000
5,000
50,000
5,000
10,000
1,000
1,000
5,000
1,000
1,000
5,000
1,000
500
20,000

Among other items of interest may be noted that the privilege to sell refreshments under the rules and regulations published by the Executive Committee was granted to Messrs. Schweppes for the sum of 5,500. The privilege of selling the catalogue was granted to Messrs. Spicer & Son for the sum of 3,200, and an additional 2d. per catalogue for all sold over and above 500,000 of the small edition and 5,000 of the large. Mr. Bennett (later Sir John Bennett), watchmaker in the City, gave 750 for the right to advertise on the last page. My father was one of the early Commissioners entrusted with the carrying out of the scheme in all its details, and the profits of the undertaking when the exhibition was closed and accounts were made up, amounted to the sum of 200,000, which sum was part of the endowments used to build and equip the South Kensington Museum. As is well known, the Crystal Palace at Sydenham is, with certain additions, the structure of the Hyde Park Exhibition of 1851. My father surveyed and bought for the Crystal Palace Company a beautiful site at Sydenham where the Crystal Palace stands. The Hyde Park Exhibition closed on the 15th October, 1851. A first column of the Crystal Palace was raised into its place on the 5th August, 1852. In an article in the morning Advertiser of the 27th May, 1876, it is stated that “During this brief interval, the ideas to which the new building was to be dedicated were completely matured, a whole scheme was perfected, a company formed with a body of able and practical gentlemen as its directors, a charge of incorporation obtained and the services of numerous eminent men belonging to various professions, or whose names have been long identified with various branches of art and science, were engaged to superintend the several departments and the numerous works and ornaments, which, in the aggregate, were to form the Crystal Palace, with its vast appliances for instruction and its unequalled appenage of sylvan beauty.’” Such was the inspiration of those who founded the Crystal Palace and filled it with courts and treasures of educational and aesthetic value; and from among these founders and workers a group of artists, musicians and literary men surrounded my father, who was the first Director of the enterprise, and who at the end of the period of directorship was able to show a successful balance sheet as the result of the labours of himself and others. For his work and generous devotion in initiating and helping to carry to a successful issue the first Great International Exhibition, my father was offered, but declined, knighthood—and knighthoods were not thrown about in those days as they are now.

As I grew up I remember intimates of my parents’ home circle, such as Arthur Sullivan, Carter Hall, George Cruikshank, George Grove, Labouchere, Scott Russell and many others of that period; and I as a schoolgirl loved to listen to the really good talks on every subject of interest of the day which I heard in my home surroundings. Later on, when I was sent to Miss Cresswell’s school in Sussex Square, Brighton, I naturally knew less of what was going on at home, but I was always able to keep up in thought with my father’s work and activities, for in the holiday time I had the privilege of being his reader; and every subject, either in the newspapers or magazines of the day, or in any book of the moment which I read aloud to him, we discussed fully, and he was able to throw for me much light on the various questions of politics, art or literature. Still later on when I had left school and his health was not so good, I became his amanuensis, for he was then writing much on social questions and preparing papers to be read at the British Association or at Social Science Congresses. “Waste Labour to Waste Land” was one of the subjects in which he was deeply interested, for he already foresaw the difficulties under which agriculture was later on to suffer, and was also already alarmed at the then very moderate figures of unemployment. He realised also that Great Britain could, and should be, self-supporting where wheat, and to a great extent meat, are concerned. His great pleasure in the summer holidays was to go abroad with some of us young ones to collect information about scientific farming, afforestation and intensive culture of fruit and vegetables on the Continent. Languages coming easily to me as I, thanks to his care, had been thoroughly well taught both French and German, he used me as his interpreter, and many were my difficulties in these languages when it came to asking technical questions and receiving highly technical replies. But the pleasure to me of these Continental trips was so great and the benefit to me in these technical encounters was so extreme as regards general knowledge, that I look back to these days of travel with my father as some of the happiest and most valuable in my life.

About my school at Brighton I must confess that though it was in some respects strict and later Victorian, the education was extraordinarily good. Besides a large and efficient staff of teachers, including a French and German governess always in residence, we had professors for many subjects, such as mathematics, science, French literature and a very excellent teacher of pianoforte in Mr. Goss. We spoke German all the morning and French all the afternoon, but were allowed when out for our walks to talk English with one another. We had to attend numbers of missionary meetings, which I loathed, and besides two church services on Sunday had endless religious exercises such as repeating of catechisms and collects between the hours of services. This overdoing of doctrinal teaching alienated, I am convinced, many of the pupils from church going, and made prigs and hypocrites of others; but once Sunday was over the school curriculum with its regular duties and studies appealed to me vastly. Great pains were taken with our reading aloud, with pronunciation and with what the French call diction; and I have often in later life felt grateful that this was the case.

At eighteen I left school and at the same time ceased to be a schoolroom young person; that is, I was admitted to late dinner, had a coming-out party, and attended with one or other of my sisters any dances, balls or entertainments that were the order of the day. But I went on with some of my studies, especially drawing and painting, and continued to write for my father and help him in his work, accompanying him in the summer to Archaeological, Social Science, British Association, and other meetings, and visiting with .him the old friends and fellow-workers of the strenuous ’fifties and ’sixties. I have mentioned George Cruikshank as being a frequent visitor to our home, and I can still remember the mischievous delight with which we young ones in the safe seclusion of the schoolroom discussed his eccentricities both of beliefs and personality. As is well known, he was a rabid teetotaller, and I can remember him taking us children into the hot-houses where the grapes were hanging in rich and ripe bunches, and pointing out to us that nature had provided for each grape an exquisite skin which protected the luscious juice inside from fermentation. This scheme of nature, he averred, was planned with the intention of mankind eating the grape in its unfermented state, but man, with his evil cleverness, had learnt to break and crush that exquisite skin so that the juice of the grape might ferment and turn to alcohol, which was drunk in the form of wine. I suppose that as he observed all of us young people coming to dessert and drinking our glass of sweet wine, he thought it his duty to inculcate this special lesson, but I fear we only did as my father did, smiled indulgently, for though father appreciated George Cruikshank as a man and as an artist, he did not admire his philosophy as expressed in the “Triumph of Bacchus,” that extraordinary picture in the South Kensington Museum. Old George Cruikshank was practically bald, but he had a long mesh of iron grey hair which he trained across the top of his head and kept in its place with a piece of elastic, which arrangement was the delight of us young ones, as it was the only coiffure of that sort we had ever seen. My elder sisters had good and carefully-trained voices and sang delightfully both part songs and solos, so we had constant musical evenings in our home, and my father loved to fill the house with musicians at weekends. He bought largely and with good discrimination at the various art exhibitions and possessed at one time one of the best water-colour collections of the day. The house was full of Landseers, Sants, Prouts, Coilingwood-Smiths, Birkett-Fosters and Tidyes pictures, and I remember that from a small child one or two of the pictures in his collection held a special fascination for me. One was an exquisite study by Sant of “Motherhood,” and the other a picture of the French Revolution by an artist whose name I do not remember. The incident was that of Mlle. de Sombreuil drinking a glass of blood handed to her by one of the revolutionaries on the understanding that if she swallowed it her father’s life would be spared. The face of the old father aristocrat, the faces of the crowd, and the agony of the girl torn between her love for her father and her shrinking from the revolting ordeal, used to haunt my imagination for nights and days, and I have often wondered since I grew up and left home, who had become the possessor of that picture when my father’s collection was dispersed. I think if I had owned it I would have had it destroyed, but perhaps that thought is the remains of childish impressionability.

My eldest brother was married and living in Australia. His wife was delicate, and he wrote to ask that one of his sisters should come out on a visit and help her with the children and the housekeeping. It was decided that I should be the one to undertake this duty, and I went out under the charge of a cousin to stay in my brother’s house. This was how I first came to know Australia and Sydney. Sir Hercules Robinson was at that time Governor of New South Wales, and I had introductions to Lady Robinson and other friends out there. It was there I met my future husband, Mr. George Barrow Montefiore, but I returned home before marrying him, was introduced to his family and spent some months among my own people. Then in 1879 I went out again, was married, and we lived in Sydney, where my two children were born. In 1889 my husband died and I was left with a daughter of five and a son two years old.

It was after the death of my husband, when I had to go into business matters with trustees and lawyers that I had my initiation into what the real social position of a widow meant to a nineteenth-century woman. One lawyer remarked to me, when explaining the terms of the will: “As your late husband says nothing about the guardianship of the children, they will remain under your care.” I restrained my anger at what appeared to me to be an officious and unnecessary remark and replied, “Naturally, my husband would never have thought of leaving anyone else as their guardian.” “As there is a difference in your religions,” he continued grimly, “he might very well have left someone of his own religion as their guardian.” “What! my children, the children I bore, left to the guardianship of someone else! The idea would never have entered his mind, and what’s more, I don’t believe he could have done it, for children belong even more to a mother than to a father!” “Not in law,” the men round the table interjected; while the lawyer who had first undertaken my enlightenment added dryly: “In law, the child of the married woman has only one parent, and that is the father.” I suppose he saw symptoms of my rising anger, for he appeared to enjoy putting what he thought was a final extinguisher on my independence of thought; but I could hardly believe my ears, when this infamous statement of fact was made, and blazing with anger, I replied: “If that is the state of the law, a woman is much better off as a man’s mistress than as his wife, as far as her children are concerned.” “Hush,” a more friendly man’s voice near me remarked. “You must not say such things.” “But I must and shall say them,” I retorted. “You don’t know how your horrible law is insulting all motherhood.” And from that moment I was a suffragist (though I did not realise it at the time) and determined to alter the law.

After my father’s death at the age of eighty, my mother lived at St. Aubyns, Hove, where I subsequently returned and lived with or near her for some time. It was during the early years of my widowhood, while still living in Sydney, that I met Sir George Grey, who had come to Sydney from Hobart with his niece, Mrs. George, on the occasion of the federation of the Australian States. Sir George’s work in the colonies of New Zealand, South Australia and South Africa is well known; and as a maker of Constitutions for these new colonies he was consulted as a specialist to advise on the Australian Federal Constitution in the making. I had the privilege of seeing him constantly at this time, and of having most intimate talks with him on his past work, and on his future ideals for the British colonies. He addressed a great meeting at Sydney Town Hall on the question of “One man one vote,” when Mrs. George and I were the only women present, and we sat on the platform and watched the huge enthusiastic and interested crowd of men in the body of the hall. It was almost my first introduction to politics and to public meetings, and I felt that here, indeed, was something worth while in my life which, since the death of my husband and my father, I had looked upon as more or less of a closed chapter, as far as interests outside my borne were concerned. When I spoke to Sir George Grey on this negative aspect of things, which seemed to be shutting me in, and cutting me off from interest in life (for I no longer cared for the balls, picnics and race meetings which had filled to overflowing my short married life), he made it his business to re-kindle my interest in social and political questions, the fire of which my father had originally lighted. He told me that I had so much more general knowledge than had most women of my age, and that I had been so much in contact with masculine minds, that I was able to sift evidence and form my consequent opinions in a way which was different from the processes of thought of most women and that I should try and specialise on political and social questions. He spoke to me of the enfranchisement of women in the colonies, where things moved more rapidly than in the older countries, and said that such legislation would lead the way for similar reforms Great Britain and elsewhere. He added that now that the question of Federated Australia was becoming a fait accompli, each State in the Federation was making its own special laws, and in consequence, the women in each State must agitate and organise for political enfranchisement. “That should be your work,” he said to me more than once, “to help found a Women Suffrage League for New South Wales. It has been done in New Zealand, and must be done in each Australia State. Try and find out which members of Parliament would be favourable to the idea, and get together a group of men and women who will work to forward such legislation, and you will find intense interest in the work while it will help you to plan out a new life, side by side with the duties you have at hand in superintending the education of your children.” I took his advice, and the result was eventually that, having found a response to the enquiries made by a small group of women suffragists in Sydney, we founded in 1891 the “Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales,” the first meeting: of which were held in my house in Darlinghurst Road in Sydney. As this was the inception of the public part of my life, I think it will be useful for the purposes of developing the history of one section of the Suffrage Movement, now a national and an international one, to give the exact story as told in the minutes kept by Miss Rose Scott, of the early meetings of the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales. When I was in Sydney recently I used often to go up to Miss Scott’s house in Woolhara to talk over with her our work in the past and to discuss the future of women’s organisations in various parts of the world. In connection with the early days of our work together, we had occasion to look up some of the minutes of our first meetings, and with Miss Rose Scott’s permission, I took copies of the minutes of some of the preliminary meetings. These I will now reproduce in a chapter of their own.


Next: Chapter III. My First Work for Suffrage